Professional Development Opinion

Response: What Principals Look For In A Prospective Teacher

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 13, 2012 9 min read
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Lynnette Beer asked:

I have 3 more courses and student teaching left until I earn my teaching certification! I have a couple of questions and a response to any would be helpful.

I am wondering if there is something I should be doing to prepare for the experience in the meantime? Is it a good idea to volunteer in a classroom? Or what other ways are there to prepare as well as build begin to build my resume’?

What do principals look for in a prospective teacher?

It’s getting close to interview time for next year, so this is a very timely question. Thanks, Lynnette, for asking it!

I was lucky enough to get three very talented and respected administrators to contribute guest responses -- Eric Sheninger, Pete Hall and Pam Moran -- and many helpful comments from readers.

Response From Eric Sheninger

Eric Sheninger is the Principal of New Milford High School (NJ). He is a nationally recognized leader in the area of educational technology leadership and co-author of Communicating & Connecting With Social Media. You can learn more about Eric’s work at his website. Check him out on Twitter at @NMHS_Principal:

With education cuts across the country prospective teachers are entering into a much more competitive field than ever before. As a Principal in a relatively small school (700 students) I now receive hundreds of resumes for a posted position where on the past I might have only received a maximum of thirty. It is now extremely important for prospective teachers to engage in a variety of activities that can provide them with experiences that will set them apart from other candidates. Examples of valuable experiences include substitute teaching in their area of certification, accepting maternity-leave replacement positions, accepting or volunteering as a coach or club advisor, tutoring, past employment related to area of certification, participation in professional development activities offered by various organizations, and attainment of specialized certifications (i.e. Drivers Education, Google Apps, Health, etc.).

During the interview process prospective teachers need to clearly articulate characteristics that set them apart if they make it through the paper screen. First and foremost they must convince me that they have a passion for working with children and will go to great lengths to make sure that they all succeed. One question I commonly ask at the beginning of the interview is this, “What do you teach?” The answer I am looking for is kids, not the specific content area. Other things I look for include sound understanding of effective pedagogy, enthusiasm, the willingness to take risks, an innovative thought process, vision for technology integration, and instructional strategies that will cultivate essential skills (i.e. communication, collaboration, creativity, media literacy, global connectedness).

Response From Pete Hall

Pete Hall is the Principal of Shaw Middle School in Spokane, Washington. He has written two books, including Lead On! Motivational lessons for school leaders. Pete is a past Outstanding Young Educator Award honoree from ASCD and is a National Principal Mentor Certificate holder with NAESP:

As a principal, I can answer that last question first. When I am seeking and interviewing prospective teachers, I look for people who have the right combination of “hard skills” (i.e. technical knowledge, expertise, teaching skills) and “soft skills” (i.e. limitless energy, belief in kids, positive attitude) for the position our school has open. To be fair and honest, every job is unique, so our requirements are unique as well.

What’s the best way to demonstrate that you’ve got the skills and wherewithal to get the job done? Contracted teaching experience is the best way to demonstrate your abilities in a classroom, but for new teachers just entering the profession, that provides a challenge. How do you show experience if you haven’t got any experience? Generally, it’s to roll up your sleeves and do it.

Registering in your local school district as a substitute teacher, if you’ve got the necessary qualifications, can provide you with exposure to multiple grade levels, different buildings, and the unique daily experience of being in a school. That will also allow you to meet multiple administrators and teachers with whom you can begin to build solid professional relationships. Your dependability, work ethic, personality, flexibility, and ability to relate to children will all be on display - so this is a good way to show off your soft skills.

Substituting is an approach that will give you some short-term benefits, but since most sub assignments are for single days, the depth and breadth of teaching and learning during those periods are likely limited. To build a stronger base, I’d recommend volunteering in a school - preferably the school at which you’ll be completing your student teaching, if that’s been confirmed yet. Here you’ll have a chance to build strong relationships with a particular teaching staff, engage in small-group instruction, support teachers, and serve as a utility for the building. If this is an approach you choose, I’d recommend getting a full taste of the job: attend teachers’ planning meetings, collaboration sessions, professional development, staff meetings, and school events. Whatever time you can afford to put in, do it. That combination of events gives you the opportunity to start building your toolkit, to strengthen your skillset, and to prepare yourself for your upcoming student teaching. Good luck!

Response From Pam Moran

Pamela Moran is superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia and president of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents. She is @pammoran on Twitter and writes at her blog, A Space For Learning:

You can’t spend too much time working with young people as an entry point into teaching. Novice teachers who’ve coached, tutored, worked in summer camps or engaged in formal volunteer settings come to their first teaching job with a realistic understanding of the challenges and rewards of working with children. Take advantage of every such opportunity.

Use these experiences to figure out what teachers do to reach individual learners - how they help kids find a learning passion and build confidence, not just knowledge and skills. Keep a journal and “teacher watch.” Record what you notice people do to help young people feel comfortable, safe, and confident enough to take learning risks. This can happen anywhere adults and young people interact. Ask around to identify outstanding teachers. Some names will pop up more than once. Offer to volunteer in such a teacher’s class. If at all possible build a mentor relationship with an excellent teacher. Every novice needs a trusted colleague who will answer questions, occasionally listen to you vent frustrations, and offer wisdom and support.

Join Twitter’s PLN. Participate now in #ntchat, started by Lisa Dabbs, @teachingwithsoul. You’ll find amazing resources and dedicated educators willing to help novices -it’s a portable support network you can take anywhere you go.

Choose teacher friends wisely. Don’t hang out with toxic teachers - those who complain non-stop about children, work, parents, and principals. Instead, seek out the many teachers who value kids, constantly look for ways to reach every learner no matter what, and take learning risks themselves - teachers who focus on learning as the goal, not the test. Make this a habit beginning now.

Principals are looking for more than a few great young men and women to work in our schools. Learning leaders want teachers who are relationship builders, genuinely want to collaborate with others, independently seek new pedagogical skills and knowledge, orient towards adaptability and flexibility from a learners’ point of view, and practice reflection as a lifelong learning routine - all while juggling the organizational details associated with managing a learning system for children who vary in need. Also remember, an interview is a two-way process. Look for a school consistent with what you value in a principal and teaching peers.They are out there.

The fact that you’re asking such great questions means you’re on a path to becoming a reflective practitioner. Thank you for pursuing the most important and honorable profession in America.

Responses From Readers

As usual, I’ll share excerpts from reader comments along with links so you can read them in their entirety:

K Paiml @katpam3

We are looking for a collaborator/team player and someone who is a continuous learner. We also look for activities outside your student teacher/block experiences. Do you volunteer with special needs children/camps? Do you speak another language (in our case, Spanish)?

In the interview process, please be specific. If you are asked how you meet the needs of a variety of learners in your classroom, don’t just say “I differentiate”. That’s good, but be specific. Show, don’t tell. Elaborate on how you did that in your classroom experiences - give examples. Technology integration is another hot topic. Don’t tell a prospective employer that you let them play math games on the computer as integrating technology. Again, that’s ok, but how do you seemlessly integrate the technology for student projects?

Above all, be yourself. Don’t try to be something you are not. Your personality is a big part of the interview process. Please be on time (or a little early) for the interview, dress appropriately, and come prepared - practice your answers.


I would suggest getting on substitute lists at different districts and schools. You will gain experience, and the school will have a greater understanding of how you manage a classroom.


I want a candidate who understands, loves, values, and respects children. I want a candidate who understands the value of relationships, with students and with colleagues, and who has a sense of how to build and strengthen them. I want a candidate who knows and loves their subject and who continues to learn on a daily basis. I want a candidate who understands and values the core principles and philosophies of my school, and sees what it means to put them into practice. While I value experience, I value the above mindset more.

Dr. Domine:

I’d like to add that applicants should Google themselves to find out what information about them exists and how it supports or detracts from their identity as a teaching professional. Managing one’s online identity is not something that teacher education programs emphasize--yet it can cost an applicant a potential interview and further down the road it can even cost them their job.

Perpetual Student:

It would be very advantageous to have an endorsement to teach second language students.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Eric, Pete, Pam and to many readers for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.